The spring bird migration is starting to wind down now, with the later tropical migrants and shorebirds now showing up. There have also been a number of unusual birds on the Lakeshore- great black-backed gull, Franklin’s and laughing gulls, Bonaparte’s gulls, and the little gull, a rare European visitor. This year there have been an unusual number of little gulls seen on the Lakefront.
Another bird, much more obvious and perhaps surprising, is also being seen- American white pelicans. We usually think of pelicans as tropical birds, and if you visit the gulf coast of Texas in winter you can find them. Under that assumption I’ve heard people speculate that pelicans we see around here have been blown far off course by storms, but that’s not the case.
The brown pelican is a tropical bird, and is restricted to coastal areas to the south. The American white, however, is a bird that nests in lakes on the prairies to our west, their breeding range extending into Canada. If the birds we see here have been blown off course it’s that they are farther to the east than usual.
Pelicans have some remarkable adaptations- squat, buoyant bodies, webbed feet, and their remarkable gular (throat) pouches that allow them to be proficient fishers. They are among the largest birds, with wingspans of 6-9 feet and weigh 10-17 pounds. They are members of the order Pelicaniformes, which also includes cormorants and several other families of birds.
Not only do the pouches serve as baskets to aid in the catching of fish, they are also used to hold partially digested fish which nestling birds eat. In addition, the large flap of skin of the gular pouch has blood vessels which allow the birds to more efficiently cool themselves by panting. They eat many different kinds of fish, including carp, chubs, perch, catfish and suckers, and I’m sure the alewives that seem to be abundant this year.
White pelicans are common out west, but they began showing up in greater numbers a few decades ago in Green Bay. They are colonial nesters, and they began nesting on islands in the lower bay along with cormorants. They nest right on the ground, sometimes building up a mound. There may be anywhere from a few to a few hundred birds in a nesting colony.
The world population of white pelicans numbers about 180,000 birds. Their numbers declined substantially in the early 1900’s due to wetland destruction, pesticide contamination, and shooting by people either mistaking them for geese or under the guise of protecting fish. Shooting is still the main cause of death for these birds. They were considered a threatened species in the 1960’s, but regulation of pesticides and other management has allowed their population to increase, although it is not as high as it was before European settlement.
Pelicans are unusual and easily identifiable birds. About 25 years ago, my wife and I saw a single white pelican in the West Twin River near Woodland Dunes, which I had visited only once. We went to report the bird at the little farmhouse nature center, and met an interesting fellow named Bernie Brouchoud. I guess the rest, as they say, is fate…